Behind the Scenes

3 Jan 2012

This year I’ve been very lucky, because there have been no production rehearsals or performances between Christmas & New Year – a previously unheard of state of things – so I have had a lovely long time away and have completely forgotten how to work the computer. And when you’re full of turkey and Christmas pud it’s hard to rack up the enthusiasm needed to come back to work…

Now of course, reality intrudes with a bang – delays on the trains mean that one person hasn’t arrived, another is ill and can’t be here for the final studio run-through and things we thought had been arranged before we went away are unravelling.

The technical staff are getting in to the theatre and champing at the bit for the Giulio Cesare set, which they want on stage, but is being used for this morning’s rehearsal; the orchestra (who HAVE been working, giving 2 Viennese New Year concerts) are rehearsing in the Howard Assembly Room; we have the first Cesare stage rehearsals at the end of the week, leading up to the opening in 10 days time; and the Planning and Education Departments want to talk about the future. Oh, and the weather is HORRID.

Hit the ground running? At the moment I’m just about shuffling along. But this is a season of strong women, with our operas Norma, Cesare (Cleopatra is stunning) and Madama Butterfly…so oh well, back to the treadmill.

Happy New Year everybody!

By the way – Giulio Cesare and Norma are both looking and sounding fantastic, so it’s all worth it in the end.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare is inspired by one of the most passionate romances of all time – that between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Opens on Saturday 14th January.

Bellini’s Norma tells the tale of one woman’s struggle to save her people from ruin. Opens on Saturday 28th January.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is the tale of a Japanese woman who sacrifices everything for love. Opens on Sunday 5th Febraury

Opera North Projects Manager Jo Nockels on preparations for Light Night, taking place across Leeds on Friday 7 October.

Light Night is now just four nights away and there is a hive of activity around the preparation of the installation ‘O Let me Weep,’ that will be taking place in the Howard Assembly Room. Light Night is a unique opportunity to throw open the doors of the venue to hundreds of people over the course of a few hours and offer them a glimpse into a new world, this year the enchanted wood of the opera The Fairy Queen.

Large hanging frames for the installation are currently being made, ready to be rigged in the roof this Friday. The dress maker has been fitting the extraordinary dress to singer Claire Bradshaw, images of forests and clouds will be projected onto the dress as they will with the hanging screens.

Whilst I say there is a hive of activity, the hive is not really here at Opera North just yet. The frames are in workshops in the basement, the dress has been designed and fitted at the singer’s house, the projections are being developed to run on sophisticated video software and the musicians don’t arrive until Thursday night for their rehearsal. It’s the moment of greatest tension in developing any new production: will it feel how we expect? How will everything work? Will everyone turn up?

My favourite part of Light Night projects is the reaction and interaction from the audience. During O Let me Weep, people will be able wander in and out of the room, so becoming part of the piece. Meandering through the ‘forest’ of screens, you automically become somewhere between an observer and a protagonist in the drama, perhaps encountering Titania herself, feeling the power of her voice, and this extraordinary moment in the opera. In the story of The Fairy Queen, this is when Titania wakes and realises that her husband has humiliated her and that her marriage is over. We wanted to explore what happens when you repeat that moment again and again, when you get stuck in that moment and that emotion.

Jo Nockels
Opera North Projects Manager


O Let me Weep takes place in the Howard Assembly Room as part of Light Night in Leeds on Friday 7th October. It is a free, five hour video installation with performance by mezzo-soprano Claire Bradshaw, guitarist Craig Ogden and oboist Hazel Cropper. Entrance is from 5pm-10pm and visiters can come and go at will.

Photos@Malcolm Johnson

Over the last week, I have been watching rehearsals for Ruddigore, which opens on September 30 after its huge success in early 2010. While writing this, I am cosied up next to two skeletons who live in a prop box when they are not on stage. The atmosphere is relaxed, as everyone loves working on this production. Choreographer Kay will often run warm up sessions, so performers are prepared for the energetic movement sequences on the rake. Before they get to the point where a whole scene or an act are run through, rehearsals are about simultaneity as well as repetition. A sequence is repeated and refined as the performers co-ordinate the many things that happen at the same time (singing, words, movement, gesture, facial expression, reactions). There are also some intermittent periods, where performers are going over steps, music and text, spoken dialogue or movement sequences in isolation. At a Ruddigore rehearsal, a scene in Act 2 sees director Jo Davies talking through a point involving a cloak with the singer of Robin, while Rose and Richard are practising a lift – impressive, as Amy Freston (Rose) sings some very high notes while flung head down over Richard’s (Hal Cazalet) shoulder. They practise it ‘dry’ several times, doing the movements on their own, then running through it again and marking the notes, while a line of chorus bridesmaids practises dainty steps, with the choreographer Kay demonstrating alongside them (but mind the tiger rug along the way!). To a passer-by, this might just seem like a hive of activity, but it’s a flurry of micro-rehearsals before everyone comes back together again with piano for an improved version of the sequence.

The next day, the gents who sing the parts of the Murgatroyd ancestors practise the choreography of ‘The Ghosts’ High Noon’. One ghost gallops in on an imaginary horse, one persistently chases Baronet Ruthven with a lance – nothing is safe from these mischievous ghouls. This is a show stopping number of skilfully choreographed mayhem, meaning lots of detailed one-by-one rehearsals, concerned with cues, timing and position in the space, often while manipulating props (my skeletal rehearsal room companions!). And of course there’s an opportunity to trip over the tiger rug.

Photo: Malcolm Johnson

Ruddigore is a performance which requires a lot of energy – try performing a Charleston on a raked stage while singing, or try dancing round a couple in an excitable group of singing bridesmaids at least twenty times until it’s exactly right, not to mention spooky dances while singing about the ghosts’ high noon in forte. Finally, try finding your breath in the vigorous finale and its infamous patter, congratulating Mad Margaret and Sir Despard Murgatroyd in William Gilbert’s immortal words:

‘Prompted by a keen desire to evoke,

All the blessed calm of matrimony’s yoke,

They will toddle off tomorrow

From this scene of sin and sorrow

For to settle, settle, settle, settle, settle, settle

In the town of Basingstoke!’

Dr Kara McKechnie lectures in theatre and performance at the University of Leeds. Her book on Opera North will be published by Emerald in early 2013.

For anyone who hasn’t seen a performance of Das Rheingold yet, Peter Mumford’s design uses a giant projection screen hung over the rear of the orchestra.  The screen is a triptych meaning it has three panels, in our case three side-by-side squares of approximately 4½ x 4½ metres each.  The screens and their frame had to be custom made. As Leeds Town Hall has quite a restricted weight limit on what can be flown from its roof beams. The frame was constructed from aluminium instead of the much less expensive but far heavier steel. 

Very early in the design process it was decided that we would tour a flying aluminium truss from which the screen, lights and projectors would be hung.  This guarantees that the set-up is standardised from venue to venue and speeds the installation and removal time. Once built and loaded with the equipment the truss is hauled up to the ceiling all in one go by electric motors.

The challenge for the forthcoming performance in September at The Lowry is the “acoustic shell” (borrowed from Welsh National Opera) which will encase the stage. Surrounding the musicians and singers with tall and shiny wooden flats allows the audience to hear a louder, crisper, more vibrant sound which is closer to that of a concert hall than a theatre.  The triptych will be at the back of the stage and sightlines from the “gods” prevent us from rigging our trusty truss in the auditorium. From a technical point of view The Ring Cycle has been arranged to be toured as a “one-night- stand”, although actually most venues have offered us some time either the day before the show to set-up or the day after to pack-up.  Birmingham Symphony Hall was unable to allow us any extra time so we arrived at 8am in the morning unloaded, set-up, rehearsed, performed, packed-up and finished re-loading the vehicles at 2am the next morning. Phew!

Tim Anger, Production Manager

Das Rheingold has its final two performances this week. Leeds Town Hall on Thursday 8 September and The Lowry, Salford Quays on Saturday 10 September. For more information go here.

‘Everyday I’m shuffling…’

Anne Sophie Duprels rehearses bowing in full kimono

Madama Butterfly is in the second week of rehearsals. Operatic voices are radiating from the corridor and the buzz of the approaching Autumn season is here. Placing myself inconspicuously amidst rehearsals I got a sneak peek of what’s in store. The Opera North rehearsal room is transformed into the Madama Butterfly set, transporting the cast into the minimalist Japanese surroundings. Everyone is in their everyday clothes with exception of the odd kimono slung around shoulders, Japanese hats and sandals. Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) and Ann Taylor (Suzuki) try to keep their balance on ‘geta’ shoes, traditional Japanese wooden platform shoes worn by women to keep their long and expensive kimonos off the floor. The singers wear the ‘geta’ shoes in rehearsals in order to feel comfortable walking and performing in them. The set of Madama Butterfly has a steep incline which Anne Sophie Duprels must stand on and walk up, a task I imagine similar to attempting to walk up a hill whilst trying on your mum’s shoes when you were younger.

Director Tim Albery shows Noah Stewart (Pinkerton) how to shuffle

Director, Tim Albery is very involved in the rehearsals, he dips in and out showing the singers where to stand, demonstrating how to bow correctly, hands on hips, palms flat and a slight tip forward keeping the back straight to ensure it is as accurate to Japanese culture as possible. A sight I never thought I’d see, a grown man showing another grown man how to shuffle across stage in the style of a geisha girl. Pretending to carry a tray with straight arms, one foot in front of the other but barely losing contact with the floor, Tim Albery shuffled across the set closely followed by the new, young American tenor Noah Stewart (Pinkerton), who mimics the geisha shuffle in the production. Stage managers stand in for absent chorus members carrying trays of drinks and marking out the correct positions, props supervisors study which props must be on stage at what time and what scene changes must be made, scribbles on the score are made continuously and tiny sections of scenes are rehearsed over and over until perfect. Amongst all the rehearsal rush, alterations and repetitions it is still clear that everyone there is excited, enthusiastic and passionate about the piece, one of Puccini’s most famous and loved operas. The next stage for rehearsals is to join together with the chorus and orchestra before rehearsals move to the stage next week.  

Madama Butterfly opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 17 September. For more information go here.

We delved deep into the hidden world of the Opera North props store to pull out some gems from past productions, but can you tell us which prop popped up in which opera? Match the letter of the prop with the title of the opera in a comment below and you could win a pair of tickets!

Pinocchio = C

Midsummer Nights Dream = D

L’enfant et les Sortileges = B

Marriage of Figaro = A

The Marriage of Figaro









L’enfant et les Sortileges











Midsummer Nights Dream

Congratulations to Karen who was picked at random from correct answers.